North Korea has released two American prisoners — Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. I agree with Claudia Rosett that we should be glad for the two prisoner/hostages, but unhappy about the way their release was brought about.
President Obama secured the release of Bae and Miller by sending James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to North Korea. Clapper carried a message from President Obama to North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un.
The State Department denies that Obama made any concessions in exchange for the prisoner release, but the denial shouldn’t be taken seriously. Would Obama — would any president — admit to making concessions to North Korea?
But even if there was no quid pro quo for the release, Clapper’s visit itself was a concession. As Rosett says, “the visit to North Korea by America’s intelligence chief was, in itself, a form of tribute, in which the U.S. superpower stooped to beg a favor from Pyongyang.” The new North Korean dictator has pulled off “an in-your-face power play that the rest of the world will understand, even if Washington does not.”
By receiving tribute from the president, via an important American visitor/supplicant, Kim Jong Un checks an important box in his quest to cement as a worthy successor to previous North Korea dictators. As Rosett reminds us, Kim Jong Il, demanded a visit from then-President Clinton as the price of a potential missile deal.
Clinton didn’t go but he did send Madeleine Albright and Wendy Sherman. Not one to give up, Kim finally got his visit from Clinton in 2009, when the former president came to pick up two American employees of former Vice President Al Gore’s TV station.
Now, Kim Jong Un can say that he too has coerced an American president into paying tribute.
Symbolism, moreover, is not the only concern. Even if we take the administration at its word that the prisoner release carried no quid pro quo, we should be worried that concessions will follow during the final years of Obama’s administration.
Christian Whiton, former deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea during the Bush administration, explains why:
The North Korean government knows more about the U.S. political cycle than many American political scientists. It saw that the final two years of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations were fruitful for dealing with presidents and secretaries of state desperately trying to burnish their legacies.
Under President Clinton, aid to North Korea from Washington and Seoul spiked beginning in 1999, and included efforts to build nuclear power plants for the North Koreans. Under President Bush, Rice announced in 2007 a breakthrough whereby Pyongyang would give up its nuclear program in exchange for aid. As some predicted, North Korea took the aid but kept the nuclear program. It now likely hopes for a repeat of sorts.
If Clinton and Bush were soft-headed enough to make concessions to North Korea during their lame duck years, it’s a good bet that Obama, predisposed as he is to appeasing anti-American strongmen, will follow suit.